The events of Revolution in 1917 and the Russian Civil War led to thousands of Russians to leave their homeland and settle in dozens of countries around the world.
The total number of immigrants in the “first wave” is estimated differently. In 1924, Grand Duke Nicholas stated that nearly 3 million Russian emigrants scattered around the world. According to data collected by the High Commissioner for Refugees at the League of Nations F. Nansen, in 1926 eleven countries in Europe and Asia were home to more than 1 million 131 thousand people who emigrated from Russia. In modern literature, the total number in the “first wave” is estimated at 1.5-2 million people.
Refugees from Russia began actively arrive to Chekhoslovakia at the turn of 1920-21 after the evacuation of Wrangel’s army from Novorossiysk and the Crimea. Crimea was captured by the Red Army on 15 November 1920. Wrangel’s army and civilians, who had fled with it from Russia, were placed in military camps of Constantinople, at Gallipoli, on the island of Lemnos and Turkey.
In the spring of 1921 a serious shortage of food began. It forced the refugees to look for opportunities to move to other countries. Czechoslovakia gave shelter to nearly 13 thousands of people from Russia and accounted approximately 22,600 Russian immigrants in 1930 census .
There were two schemes running in the country.
Russian Action was created in 1921 and granted thousands of Russian émigré residence and ﬁnancial support during the 1920s and 1930s. This organisation helped not just with finding a place to live, a job and getting an education, but also helped to create conditions and opportunities for the preservation of national identity and native culture.
Another special organisation created among emigrant community was called the Union of Rural and Urban Affairs in the Czechoslovak Republic (i.e. Zemgor). Zemgor’s role in the life of exiles in Czechoslovakia extended to assisting with creating labor cooperatives, open courses, dining, providing loans, legal advice and employment opportunities for immigrants, opening a sanatorium for the needy, library and schools for Russian children, publishing the magazine ” Russian school abroad “.
And while many other countries have opened the door for ALL refugees from Russia, the Czechoslovak government sought to regulate the flow of Russian emigrants. Mainly scientists, economists, engineers, agronomists, writers, theatre people could come to this country. Prague became an academical centre in Europe and, for this reason, known as ”Russian Oxford‘.
Czechoslovakia also became a cultural centre for Cossack emigration. According to some historians about 3,000 Cossacks resettled in Czechoslovakia. Among the students who came to Prague, a significant number were representatives of the Don and Kuban Cossacks. Most Cossacks, unlike the rest of the Russian emigration, adapted very quickly to the conditions of immigrant life since they were better suited to hard physical labour. Cossacks accounted for 80% of Russian immigrants, who worked in agriculture in Czechoslovakia.
The most important function performed by Zemgor was the registration of immigrants. These registration cards were held in Russian Foreign Historical Archive in Prague and miraculously survived the World War II.
This archive was at first under the auspices of Zemgor, then was transferred to the Czechoslovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And in 1945, under pressure from Moscow, the Czechoslovak government transferred the files as a gift “to the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in connection with its 250th anniversary.”
In December 1945, 650 boxes of documents, books, magazines and newspapers were sent to Moscow by military transport of nine wagons, guarded by soldiers of the NKVD troops. In addition to Zemgor Files there were files from Don Cossack archive 25 boxes of exhibits from Don Army museum and the memoirs of the late General A.A. Brusilov. All of them were placed in the Central State Archive of the October Revolution (today GARF).
Until the end of the 1980s, Russian funds abroad were considered closed, working with them required a special admission. Today these files are readily available at State Archive of Russian Federation (GARF)-Fund number (In Russian) Р5764 -“Zemgor registration cards”. A search by surname in electronic database of the archive is possible.
Additional records are also held in Slavonic Library in Prague.
“Communism in Russia Only Exists on Paper: Czechoslovakia and the Russian Refugee Crisis, 1919 – 1924” by Sam Johnson
This article revisits the motives behind the Czechoslovak scheme ‘Russian Action’. In particular, it looks at the efforts to bring to Czechoslovakia Russian civil war refugees living in Constantinople.